Interested in Doing a PhD? Inés Bolaños Somoano’s journey to a PhD at the European University Institute

By Laila M. Lange (Groningen, Deusto, 2021-2023)

Inés Bolaños Somoano did a Bachelor’s in English studies, before joining the Euroculture programme in 2015. She attended the University of Göttingen and Palacký University Olomouc and finished the Master’s programme in 2017 with a thesis on Islam and terrorism in the European Union.

When finishing the Master’s programme, she felt “quite lost” and did not know what she wanted to do afterwards. However, in hindsight, she is confident that some confusion and the feeling of being lost are part of the process and that it worked out just fine for her. She took some time off after her Master’s and started applying for “random programmes” to begin a PhD position in 2018, a year after finishing Euroculture. When finishing her Master’s, she did not know a lot about the variety of possible internship and educational opportunities and mainly knew about the big European institutions. Nevertheless, what helped her most to decide what she wanted to do after graduating during the two years of Euroculture were elective courses: Both in Göttingen and Olomouc, she could select classes on religion and Islam which helped her develop her current research focus.

Inés Bolaños Somoano

In December 2017, a few months after graduating, she began an internship at the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker in Germany and worked there as a multimedia content creator. Meanwhile, she applied for PhD positions and got a position at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, the “leading institute in Europe dedicated to social sciences and humanities” and a “uniquely international research university”. According to their website, the university was set up in 1972 by the founding members of the European Communities and seven academic unity, namely the Department of Economics, the Department of History and Civilisation, the Department of Law, the Department of Political and Social Sciences, the Max Weber Programme, the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and the School of Transnational Governance. When applying for the PhD position, she had “no exact expectations” but knew that she liked writing and doing research, so she thought that a PhD position would suit her.

In her experience, getting a spot at the EUI is very difficult as it is very competitive. To apply, the applicants have to write a research proposal and, hence, should have a look at the research interest of the supervisors. When applying, the applicant also has to indicate three potential supervisors who might be interested in supervising the proposed research. Her research proposal fitted into the field of research of the supervisor, and she got the position. However, she was not given the position at first but moved up since the person getting the position declined it. She describes herself as someone who has good grades, and some international work experiences, but who was never an over-achiever. In the end, she says she got the position due to the proposal and because the first-choice candidate declined the spot. More information on how to apply for a PhD position at the EUI can be found here. In addition, most people are unaware that one can also do a paid traineeship at EUI, which she heard that people really enjoyed it. Moreover, the EUI offers multiple summer schools.

Inés really enjoys the PhD position, even though she notes that the first two years of the four-year programme were especially challenging for her since she “did not have a background in the field”. When asked about who should do a PhD, she notes that it depends a lot on the supervisor. Naturally, one should enjoy doing research, but the type of work structure is highly dependent on the supervisor. Her supervisor, for example, does not “micro-manage the thesis” which she enjoys. She advises the candidates to find out how supervisors are before applying for a specific person. Primarily, to find out whether their style of working matches the style of the candidate. One way would be to contact former PhD students, however, finding this information is not always possible. Moreover, she advises possible candidates to apply to the programme even if they do not know whether they would get accepted.

In her eyes, some big advantages of her programme are social security contributions, a good salary for a PhD position, an interesting and lively city and a diverse university. Additionally, the first year of the PhD programme is the equivalent of a Master’s programme with 60 ECTS, to “level people up” who come from different disciplines. Thereby, she received a second Master’s title while doing the first year of her PhD. In contrast, she remarks that the salary depends on the member country one is from, and that the student residence is a bit outside the city with the other PhD students.

In order to work on her PhD thesis with the topic “The evolution of Prevention of Terrorism in the European Union”, she did a research stay at the European Parliament Research Services (EPRS). Getting accepted into the EPRS was “relatively easy since the European Parliament want to be accessible and, hence, accepts as many people as possible”. She had the experience that the stay there was straightforward, and the employees were welcoming. When asked why she applied for a research stay at the EPRS, she replied that a stay at the EPRS gave her a corporate email account which has the advantage of (1) a higher priority when emailing employees of the European institutions and (2) better access to email addresses of EU employees.

During her PhD, she also became a visiting fellow at the Institute for Security and Global Affairs (ISGA), which is part of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University. Her attention was drawn to the institute as a colleague of hers was working there and she recalls that the ISGA “has a very good department for everything related to terrorism”. For Inés, being a visiting fellow has two major advantages, namely (1) she had access to information she would not have had otherwise, especially because EUI does not offer a broad range of courses related to terrorism, and (2) she had the possibility to network with people within her research area, especially when having in mind that she is interested of doing a postdoc. For her, the connection to ISGA gave her the idea that she might want to live in the Netherlands for a few years and work at Leiden University. Additionally, being a visiting fellow advanced not only her professional but also academic career by improving her thesis due to the expertise of ISGA.

When asked about her experiences in the professional sphere, she says that she has always wanted to do an internship at one of the major European institutions. In 2022, she was accepted and is currently doing a Bluebook internship at the European Commission in the Union Action and Procurement Unit (DG Home E.4). From March to July, she is contributing to the evaluation and assessment of applications for EU internal security funds, as well as project monitoring of said funds. Despite the Commission being a very sought-after employer, with an adequate salary, interesting positions, extensive benefits and good employment conditions, she finds herself eager to return to a “more humble research environment” and “to continue her academic career with a postdoc position”. She recaps: “Sometimes, the more prestigious things don’t make you happy”.

Her advice: “The sooner one starts looking for possible options after the Master’s, the better. Even though it sounds stressful, starting in the second semester can be helpful to be aware of all the possibilities”. Especially when striving for a professional career after the Master’s, she recommends current students to start looking early.


Photo credit: European University Institute

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